Nobody truly expects "Spartacus" to have a happy ending, but the Starz drama's final season, "War of the Damned," goes to some very dark places indeed.
There's no new installment this Friday -- Starz is re-running the first three episodes of the season instead -- but when we last saw Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) and his band of rebellious slaves and gladiators, they'd taken over the city of Sinuessa and begun doling out revenge to the Romans living there.
Many died in the battle for the city, and once the rebels had taken control, frightened citizens were chained up, killed for petty reasons, and pitted against each other for the entertainment of the rebels. Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), still bristling with rage over the rape and brutality she experienced at the hands of her masters, killed a blacksmith in a vicious attack that seemed at least partly driven by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Things get even more bleak in Episode 4, which airs Feb. 22 and deals with the shocking aftermath of the defeat of a band of Roman soldiers led by Marcus Crassus' son, Tiberius (Christian Antidormi). And there's even more brutality within the walls of Sinuessa in the episode, which sees Crassus (Simon Merrells) and his ally Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) beginning to deploy various anti-Spartacus strategies.
As fans of the show have seen over the past few seasons, the Romans were merciless to slaves who stepped out of line -- and in fact, the drama has gone to great pains to establish that the entire society depended on rigid oppression and the obedience of a vast army of slaves. Many of Spartacus' followers, it turns out, learned cruelty only too well from their masters.
While the escaped slaves' desire for personal vengeance is understandable, the new season asks whether Spartacus' army is starting to become just as cruel and oppressive as the Romans were. What happens when a former slave meets a Roman citizen who personally never harmed the rebel? Nothing good, usually. When I spoke to "Spartacus" executive producer Steven DeKnight, we discussed the darkness of the Sinuessa arc, which, I must admit, gave me pause. They have their flaws, but I generally want to root fot the gladiators. This season, that's not so easy.
"Historically, when they escaped, it was really not a pretty sight, what they did to the Romans," DeKnight said. "I mean, it was vicious, they really struck out at them. [Executive producer] Rob Tapert and I had always wanted to pursue that and to see that in some fashion. Starz was a little nervous about it because they had the same reaction, 'Does it tarnish our heroes?'"
But what the show has done so well during its relatively short lifespan is depict the motivations of every character and make it clear that no one faction has cornered the market on brutality or mercy. Just as previous seasons made viewers almost unwillingly root for wily Roman slave-owners such as Batiatus, Lucretia and Glaber, who had their own well-defined concerns, loyalties and ambitions, this year, the show introduced Crassus, who is so smart, charismatic and shrewd that you can almost overlook the fact that he owns more slaves than almost any other Roman.
He'd be nothing without them -- and, strangely enough, he knows it.
"Crassus was incredibly difficult to cast," DeKnight said. "I've set him up since Season 1 -- he's like the Roman boogeyman. To find the right guy to pull that off was really difficult. My God, does [Merrells] hold the screen. There are just so many levels to what he's doing."
Merrells really is that transfixing: His Crassus is an extraordinarily intelligent man who is always six steps ahead of everyone else, and Merrells is able to seamlessly transition from scenes of shocking viciousness to moments of real tenderness between Crassus and his "body slave" and lover, Kore (Jenna Lind).
The first few episodes of the season have made it quite clear that Crassus has respect, and even love, for some of his slaves, but he's one of the few Romans to see slaves as capable individuals. Despite the rebels' string of victories, most Romans see the rebellious slaves as mere rabble. Crassus, a wealthy, self-made man who still isn't truly accepted by the Roman aristocracy despite their need for his cash and resources, has realized that Spartacus is an able and intelligent foe.
"There's a level of respect in both parties that hasn't been present previously," McIntyre said in an interview. "The downfall of the Romans is that they've underestimated Spartacus before." When he goes after Spartacus' army, Crassus doesn't make that mistake.
Crassus' attitude certainly isn't shared by Caesar, who, when we meet him, is a poor but well-connected Roman soldier who has yet to face defeat in the field. He's about as cocky as they come; Lasance gives the character a spark -- and a dark streak -- that you don't get from dry history textbooks.
"Glory -- that's his path," Lasance said. Caesar is motivated by "the chance to take down such a formidable opponent of the empire. He's all for Rome as well -- it's not just about personal glory."
For each man, there's no backing down; for all its stylized violence, "Spartacus" is consistently crafty and believable when it comes to raising the stakes (the events of Episode 4, "Decimation," will do that in ways you won't soon forget). Well before the midpoint of the season, the audience is painfully aware of why none of these men can or will waver from their chosen paths.
"Crassus has got money, but not respect. Caesar is the opposite -- he's got respect, but no money. Spartacus has power, but no freedom," McIntyre noted. "They're all fighting for something really important to them, [so] you can root for every character on some level."
But the challenges of feeding a vast band of escaped slaves, attempting to defeat the Romans and trying to keep order within his fraying band of brothers and sisters has taken its toll on Spartacus. As both McIntyre and DeKnight pointed out, he's a harder, less forgiving man this season. Losing so many friends and loved ones has made him tougher, and the enormity of the task he's taken on has given him almost no time for tender emotions.
"Happiness is not something that comes to him easily," McIntyre said. All Spartacus can hope to do is find safety and freedom for those "who've looked to him for guidance."
"At the start of the season, Spartacus is very clear: There is one thing that is important to him, and that is defeating Rome -- everything else is secondary," DeKnight said. "That's something I really wanted to bring to the character by jumping six months forward from the end of 'Vengeance.' He's not the touchy-feely Spartacus from [earlier in the show]. He's a much harder man who's pushed aside certain emotions and feelings to get the job done."
The titular character isn't the only one who's changed. The previous season of "Spartacus" offered a memorable moment of catharsis when Naevia -- who turned herself into a capable warrior after being rescued from hellish conditions in a slave mine -- killed Ashur, one of her many tormentors.
But as DeKnight learned from his mentor, Joss Whedon, with whom he worked on "Buffy" and "Angel," a moment of catharsis isn't the end of the story. Often it's just the beginning of a long journey full of difficult self-realizations and punishing emotional growth.
Naevia "had all these horrible things done to her, and she had no way to balance the scales, no way to express it, no way to work through it -- and now she does," DeKnight said. "It might be the wrong way, but now she has the tools to, at least on a surface level, make herself feel better."
But Naevia's acts of brutality -- including the murder of the unfortunate blacksmith -- may not actually achieve that goal, and there's no doubt that it has "major repercussions" for the rebels, DeKnight said.
And that's just one of the things that separates this show from less accomplished (and often more expensive) cable fare. "Spartacus'" detractors may think it's nothing but an energetic cornucopia of sex and violence, but that kind of superficial snap judgment just proves that whoever assess "Spartacus" that way hasn't watched this meticulously structured drama over the long haul. Or at all.
Every encounter -- whether it takes place in a bed or at the end of a sword -- is about colliding agendas. Every act of violence and every caress has a consequence, politically, emotionally and socially. There's a debate going on in our culture about the role of violence in it, but part of the reason "Spartacus" is so beloved by its fans is because the imaginative violence and the sensual acts aren't just entertaining in their own rights -- they also carry a whole host of meanings and outcomes. The characters' actions always reverberate through the story in thoughtful and unexpected ways.
"With 'Spartacus,' it's not about the battle of the week, [just as it wasn't] about the monster of the week with 'Buffy,'" DeKnight said. "It's about, how do those events affect our characters, illuminate them? How do those events ripple through the interactions with our characters? That's the most important thing [I learned from Whedon], and that's something I really wanted to do with 'Spartacus' and something I want to continue to do with whatever show I do."
And no matter how dark things get, McIntyre indicated that the show won't end on a bleak note.
"It's ultimately the story that one man can make a difference if he tries," he noted. "It's 2,000 years later, and they're still making stories about this guy."
Note: My colleague Laura Prudom posts exclusive interviews with "Spartacus" cast members after each episode airs on Fridays. Check out the first three installments, which feature Simon Merrells (Crassus), Liam McIntyre (Spartacus) and Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Naevia). She also talked to Manu Bennett (Crixus) about his roles on "Spartacus" and The CW's "Arrow."
Also, you can listen to the full (and non-spoilery) interviews with DeKnight, Lasance and McIntyre in this week's Talking TV podcast, which is available here, on iTunes and below.
Lasance and McIntyre discuss what unites and divides Caesar and Spartacus, Caesar's ambitions and the "epic" nature of the second half of the season. DeKnight talked more about the nature of violence in popular culture, the role of "red shirts" of "Spartacus" (whom I learned are called "red shorts"), and the rebels' "dark night of the soul." He also discussed "Incursion," the military sci-fi drama that he's developing for Starz. He calls it "Band of Brothers" meets "Halo" and says it's a "boots on the ground" adventure tale rather than an outer-space story. Each season will follow one squad of soldiers and take them to a different planet, and the drama won't be as CG-intensive as "Spartacus." Find out more about his current and upcoming dramas in the new Talking TV podcast.
"Spartacus: War of the Damned" airs on Fridays at 9 p.m. EST on Starz.